Oulipian Feats: Postcard from New York City

Jean Hartig

On April 1 I had the joy of being in the audience at the New School in New York City for a reading by six poets of the Oulipo, or Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (“workshop of potential literature”), a writers group founded in France in 1960 by writer and mathematician Raymond Queneau and scientist François Le Lionnaisnown. The writers of the Oulipo, known as Oulipians (and to tackle some of their projects, the writers truly require a kind of Olympian athleticism) are a self-ordained group of poets, novelists, story writers, and mathematicians, most of them living and working in France, writing within invented constraints in an attempt to discover “potential” ways of making literature. While new forms are always being conceived, the Oulipians have their classics—the perverb, which combines the beginning of one proverb and the end of another; or the lipogram, a text that wholly excludes one or more letters of the alphabet. Above all, each structure must be enjoyable to write. The active group holds meetings and frequent public readings—“Oulipo Thursdays”—at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.

Last Wednesday night’s reading featured Oulipians Marcel Bénabou, Anne F. Garréta, Jacques Jouet, Herve LeTellier, and Jacques Roubaud, all of France; British expat Ian Monk; and the Oulipo’s newest adoptee, U.S. writer Daniel Levin Becker, who stood in for Harry Mathews, the only other American member, who, unfortunately, couldn’t make it. The event commenced the four-day Oulipo in New York celebration, which ran through Saturday and featured a roundtable discussion as well as a workshop with Bénabou, both in French; a book party for Roubaud’s The Loop in English; and readings in various venues throughout the city. The series of events was sponsored by Poets House, the French Embassy, Columbia University, Yale University, and the New School.

With limited exposure to Oulipian literature, one could make an abrupt dismissal of the work—as I was admittedly braced to do—as a mere exercise, lacking stakes, disengaged from the pulp and problems of human experience. But what I found, or rather, what I felt, was the lightness that arrives only after one has accepted that something is problematic and then transcends it. In the case of the Oulipians, that buoyancy occurs via play—organized word play—as in the best comedy.

Wit certainly permeated the group reading of Mathews’s poem “35 Variations on a Theme from Shakespeare,” each section of which restructures the phrase “To be or not to be” using a different constraint, illuminating the range of imagination and insight that such play with invented forms can initiate. Using the N+7 formula, in which each noun in a given text is replaced by the entry that follows seven words away in the dictionary, results in a line like, “To be or not to be, that is the quibble.” Similarly, using a formula called triple contradiction results in something like, “You call this life? And everything’s happening all the time? Who’s asking?” Or the reductive constraint, which breaks the original line down to an oversimplification, produces a like like, “One or the other—who knows?”

While there was delight in tasting the fruit of Mathews’s endeavor, other works read during the program were equally pleasurable because they demanded of me a shifting of my everyday processing of language. When Bénabou read from his book Pourquoi je nai écrit aucun de mes livres (Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books) in French, a language that, although foreign, feels viscerally similar to my own, the words ran through me, electrified, as I gazed at the ceiling of the latticed-stone amphitheater. Monk then read an English translation that was equally challenging: The piece was essentially a prologue reflecting on its own making.

The brightest moment of the program, though, was when Garréta read from her essay on imposing order on one’s rapidly growing book collection and creating a systematic library. “Books invented humans in order to multiply,” Garréta read. She went on to explain how books have infested her apartment, accumulated on chairs and at the foot of the bed with a sort of feral willfulness, making the routine tasks of home life, like doing laundry, unnavigable. They beg for order. But the problem, shared by many—as evidenced by the collective sigh of the audience as Garréta read—is in the fluidity of organizational categories, particularly extant ones such as those prescribed by the Library of Congress, with their overlaps, imprecisions, and failures, so that it becomes necessary to invent one’s own.

Here is a sample of Garréta’s principles of organization for ordering bookshelves, or, as she put it, bookselves, those meandering book-fed landscapes of the mind: “Books in which one encountered even once the word book,” or, conversely, those in which the word never occurs; “books that would have fit in a room of one’s own”; “books doomed to fall on dead ears”; and the “most important” set of principles, all of them permutations of the following classification: “Books given to you by someone you love.”

Monk concluded the night with a reading of one of his conceptually ambitious projects: a serious limerick. Not exactly solemn throughout, but more true and human than the mischievous hit-and-run quality of most limericks, the poem ended with this shining fragment that illuminated the texture of the evening, and of the project of the Oulipo:

…just dreams
madness schemes
our what
and our why
and our how.